Tough Ala. Immigration Law Changes Ways Of Life

A federal judge has ruled that Alabama's strict immigration laws will go forward even as appeals are made through the judicial system. Hispanic-owned businesses in the state say their customers have vanished. Among other things, the new law requires police to verify the immigrations status of suspects if there's "reasonable suspicion" they are in the country illegally.

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Alabama's tough new immigration law has been in effect for just a week, but already the state is experiencing what appears to be an exodus of Hispanic workers and students. And not all of them are immigrants. NPR's Debbie Elliott visited one Alabama town and has this report.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: At Centro Taqueria in Foley, Alabama, Erica Gonzales presses a handmade tortilla. This taco order is one of only a handful she's had today.

ERICA GONZALES: People don't come to eat. Nobody stops at the store.

ELLIOTT: Business has slowed to a crawl in the restaurant and also at the butcher shop and market next door. The shops cater to Hispanic customers and they stopped coming last Thursday, a day after Birmingham federal Judge Sharon Blackburn left intact nearly all of Alabama's stringent new immigration law.

Yesterday, she refused to grant an emergency stay while the U.S. Justice Department and a coalition of civil rights groups take their constitutional challenges to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. So for now, the state can move ahead with enforcement of new rules considered the toughest in the United States. And fear is spreading through immigrant communities like the ones here in south Alabama.

JERRY CONTRERAS: Ever since that immigration law, everyone's just like left.

ELLIOTT: Jerry Contreras is Erica Gonzales's 16-year-old son. He says dozens of families he knows have moved out of state, including his two best friends.

The high school sophomore is an Alabama native, as are his four brothers and sisters. They are all U.S. citizens, but his mother is not. She was brought here illegally by her parents in the 1980s, but since has put down roots and raised her family here. Now Jerry Contreras says Foley, Alabama doesn't feel so much like home. He's being taunted by kids at school.

CONTRERAS: Are you going back to Mexico, dude? It kind of makes me angry, but I can't do anything about it. I can't help the way I was born or the color of the skin I have.

ELLIOTT: Among other things, the new law requires police to verify the immigration status of suspects if there's reasonable suspicion they're in the country illegally. Those without proper documents can be jailed indefinitely and handed over to federal authorities for deportation.

Erica Gonzales is afraid that she will be picked up and separated from her family. She's delegated a lot of the family responsibility to her son Jerry.

CONTRERAS: We don't go out unless we need to. I like - I drive around for my mom. So if we get pulled over or something happens, I can show my driver's license. And I go to Wal-Mart and get groceries and everything like that.

ELLIOTT: On Monday, more than 2,000 Hispanic children were absent from Alabama public schools. Farmers across the state say workers didn't show up for the harvest. Yesterday, Republican Governor Robert Bentley said he remains committed to the law.

GOVERNOR ROBERT BENTLEY: We're not trying to frighten people. And honestly, I feel sorry for those families. I really do. The problem is, though, we have to enforce the law, and that is my job, is to enforce the law and we're going to do that.

ELLIOTT: Yesterday's ruling by Judge Blackburn clears the way for the state to continue with its immigration crackdown. But civil rights groups say they will immediately file an emergency request with the federal appeals court to block much of the new law. Erica Gonzales doesn't think she can wait. She's considering leaving Alabama for another state, maybe Texas or neighboring Florida.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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